It has been nearly 25 years since a demographic survey was conducted of the Jewish population of Greater New Orleans. At the time that survey was conducted, the city buzzed with the 1984 World’s Fair and watched hopefully as the warehouse district was revitalized.
While in 1984 the Jewish Federation surveyed local residents about socioeconomic issues, an updated survey was required to query the community about disaster recovery and future direction of the community—in light of the new realities it faces. As a result, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans commissioned a survey in summer 2007 to gauge the revival of the area. Frederick Weil, a sociologist at Louisiana State University, and Brenda Brasher, a sociologist at Tulane University, collaborated with a local steering committee to draft a comprehensive approach to learning about the current state of the community as well as where its future lies.
“It has been over 20 years since a survey was done here,” said Michael Weil, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “So much has changed, and Katrina has brought about dramatic shifts geographically and demographically—so people’s attitudes have also changed. It is imperative for us to know what and where we are and what needs exist before we make dramatic decisions, which is why we drafted the 2007 Community Survey.”
Before Hurricane Katrina crashed into the area in 2005, the area’s Jewish population was slowly declining. In May 2006, only 6,000 remained in the local Jewish community—but today, the news is optimistic. Estimates from early 2008 illustrate that the local population is once again on an upswing, with more than 7,200 people living in the metropolitan area.
Two-thirds of Greater New Orleans Jewish community members saw damage to their homes—but nearly 90 percent of respondents feel that they are mostly recovered from the effects of the hurricane and its subsequent flooding. These same respondents feel that their recovery from Katrina is more substantial than that of the area as a whole and are very pleased with local Jewish leadership. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for their feelings on local political leadership—and community members also worried about the local economy, the state of the school system, the high crime rate and the potential for another devastating hurricane.
Despite these fears, the survey also indicates that very few of respondents are even remotely considering moving away from the area—as Rick Weil points out, “The picture of the community in 2008 is one of strength and determination in the face of challenges.”
Such a comment is particularly poignant when one considers the effects of the storm on the local community—damage to personal property notwithstanding. The Orthodox community in Lakeview was decimated by post-Katrina flooding, and has yet to consolidate in another neighborhood. Intriguingly, the balance of Jewish population centers in the Greater New Orleans area has remained fairly consistent – most continue to choose to live in Uptown, followed by the more suburban environs of
The demographic data for the local Jewish community depicts a well-educated and prosperous populace—nearly half hold graduate degrees and 60% of respondents would be considered affluent in the local economy. More than half are Reform Jews, 15% are Conservative, and 4% are Orthodox—but many choose not to attend regular services. Most participate in Passover Seders and light Hanukkah candles each year, but only 10% keep a kosher home or light Sabbath candles each Friday evening. Most do, however, enjoy Jewish music and visit Jewish-themed websites and most are passionate about working towards Tikkun Olam (social justice).
The community is highly engaged. Two-thirds of the survey respondents belong to at least one Jewish organization—whether it’s the Jewish Community Center, Hadassah, or something in between. Half volunteer with local Jewish organizations, and approximately 60% donate annually to both the Jewish Federation and another Jewish organization or cause.
Despite the positives, there is some cause for concern.
The average age of those in the community is 57. Granted, the survey likely missed younger community members, given that they are more difficult to reach. The approaching crisis of an aging community is not endemic to only the Jewish community of the metro area—it’s a statewide and national issue that extends beyond cultural or religious boundaries. Clearly, the greatest challenge facing the local community remains attracting—and retaining—younger families with children. This must be balanced against providing for the existing population in a recovering city. Hopefully, the influx of newcomers will bring youth to the community.
Recommendations from the survey focused on boosting the local population, promoting community programs, continue hurricane recovery assistance and focus on addressing the needs of both older and younger community members alike. Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue, was destroyed when Lakeview flooded; special attention must be paid to help the Orthodox community coalesce. The entire local community needs rallying points, whether based around community projects or programs.
The 2007 Jewish Federation Community Survey of Greater New Orleans portrays a robust, self-assured community. Clearly the community is tested by the need to grow via younger members, but the Jewish Federation’s new five-year strategic plan addresses this challenge. Optimism is strong—and the future seems hopeful for the Jewish community in the Greater New Orleans area. Click here to read the survey results.